Is historicity essential for religions?
One thing that I hear often from religious folks — and especially liberal religious folks — is this idea that historicity doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if x events as posed by x scripture actually happened, because the truth is in the ideas, or the story, or the metaphor, or whatever. In the inaugural post to her new blog, Leah comments:
The real turning point in my journey was the realization a couple of years ago that you are not supposed to take anything literally! That might seem obvious to folks who grew up in more moderate faiths, but for me this was revolutionary. I started my former blog as an atheist. When I began writing that I was giving religion another look, people really wanted to know, “So what do you believe?” I tried my best to answer, though I wasn’t entirely sure myself, and I doubt my answers satisfied the questioners. My answer now would be, “What does it matter?” I don’t say that to be obstinate or evasive, but really, what does it matter what or whether I believe? I don’t go to church in search of “answers.” I go for the way the rituals, symbols and narratives work on my psyche and teach me to live in a more fully human way. When I read scripture, I don’t for one moment ask myself, “Do I think this actually happened?” because it’s completely irrelevant to me whether it did or not. What I care about is whether the text speaks to me in a way that has meaning for who I want to be and how I want to live.
I actually do want to come back to her points later, because her answer actually is considerably different from the topic I’m going to now address.
But while Leah’s comments intrigued me and will be the foundation of another post, what got me to writing this post was Brad’s comments on the Atonement. And really, just the last paragraph of his article:
I’ve said elsewhere that I don’t find the question of a historical Jesus really interesting. The idea of Jesus is what we have to deal with. Our ideas about what he did and why he did it are equally important.
And from the link within that paragraph, he says:
When it comes down to it, I’m just not that interested in the historical truth of the bible. From what I understand, there is fairly good evidence that there was a man who lived in ancient Judea that fits the description of the Jesus in the gospels. Whether that man actually was born of a virgin, or turned water into wine, or healed the sick, or cast out devils, or walked on water, or raised the dead, or even was raised himself from the dead seems of fairly little consequence.
What I love about the gospels is the idea of Jesus. Dostoyevsky famously said, “If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with the truth.” This reminds me of Joseph Smith’s famous line about evicting the devil from hell and building a heaven there with the Saints — the idea of Jesus is so beautiful and right that it transcends the question of his historicity.
I don’t get this.
Now, if you’ve seen many of my posts, you should know that I don’t give too many hoots about historicity or objectivity or those things. But to me, the subjective perception of seeing the scriptural stories as fictional vs. seeing them as historical events has vastly different levels of value.
I guess part of the issue is that I don’t really get inspired by ritual (like it seems that Leah does), nor by the idea of Jesus (like it seems that Brad does). So the discussion is ultimately academic anyway.
But it seems to me that if certain events are historical, then we draw very different conclusions about life, human nature, the universe, whatever.
Like, if Jesus was God or Jesus was the Son of God, or whatever…then that means something. Maybe we don’t exactly understand what all it means, but it means something. But if it’s just an idea that Jesus is God or that Jesus is the Son of God…what does that even mean?
Chris H. had a post at Faith-Promoting Rumor about Faith as Relationship. He didn’t quite ever get to explaining what a relationship with a dead/resurrected/god guy looks like (vs his relationship with a tangible person who is capable of responding back, like his wife). But if one supposes that Jesus is historical and that certain events about his life are historical, then at least a relationship seems to be a thinkable concept, regardless of whether it seems implausible.
But for someone for whom the idea is more important…what does a relationship with an idea even look like?
I know plenty of liberal Mormons and liberal Christians who, when finding out about various problems with scriptural history, point out that historicity isn’t really the point anyway.
…but it seems to me that the scriptures as historical documents say a lot different things than the scriptures as stories.
I mean, let’s take the Book of Mormon. If that’s historical, then that’s actually people who lived, real events that happened (including Jesus coming to the Americas, for example.) But if it’s just a story, then what conclusions am I really supposed to draw from this? (I guess the liberal contingents would say that it’s not “just” a story, imbuing storytelling with majyykal powers that I just haven’t experienced yet.)
Even when there is a sort of Aesop lesson or general lesson about human nature from a scriptural story, I feel that the historicity or literality of the story has an impact.
Like, let’s take the Garden of Eden. Supposedly, the Garden narrative (and the fall from the garden) represents something. (I guess Mormons and non-LDS Christians can’t really agree on what exactly this means…whether the fall was a good and necessary thing, or a bad thing, but the differences don’t matter as much as the fact that for both groups,the fall definitely means something.)
Well…if the Fall is an actual event that happened, then I buy that it can say stuff about human nature, psychology, etc., So, this is why we act this way — because way back when, an ancestor did x, and that’s had consequences all the way down to me.
…but if the Fall is just a story, then I don’t see why I should believe it’s explanation to have merit. Yes, it might be a nice story (although again, this is academic — I am not inspired by religious stories, so I don’t even take a position that these are just great stories)…but why should I think of it as anything but?